Drag performers sue St. George, Utah, over denying permit for show in public park

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah-based group that organizes drag performances is suing a city over the denial of permits for an all-ages show it aimed to host in a public park in April.

The group, Southern Utah Drag Stars, and its CEO Mitski Avalōx accuse the city of St. George of “flagrant and ongoing violations of their free speech, due process, and equal protection rights" and, in a complaint filed in federal court on Tuesday, are asking for damages and for St. George to reverse its decision and authorize a drag show at the end of June.

“This is the latest offense in a larger pattern of attacks discriminating against gender-diverse and LGBTQ+ people and their rights in Utah and throughout the country," said Emerson Sykes, an attorney with the ACLU, which is representing the group.

The lawsuit marks the most recent development in a fight over drag shows in St. George, Utah, a conservative city 111 miles (179 kilometers) northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. Since HBO filmed a drag show in a public park for an episode of its series “We're Here” last year, the city has emerged as a flashpoint in the nationwide battle over drag performances as they've garnered newfound political scrutiny in Republican-controlled cities and states.

Public events like drag queen story hours and the all-ages event that Avalōx intended to put together have been increasingly targeted in legislatures throughout the country. This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a ban on minors from attending drag shows and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a ban on people dressed in drag from reading books to children at public schools and libraries.

In Utah, a proposal from a St. George Republican to require warning notices for events like drag shows or pride parades in public places stalled after advancing through the state House of Representatives in March. The proposal stemmed from the pushback that resulted from the June 2022 HBO-produced drag show in St. George. City officials issued permits for the event over the objection from some council members and community activists. City Manager Adam Lenhard resigned months later over the incident after writing councilmembers that he could not legally deny the show permits, according to emails obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune.

Anti-drag activists in Utah and throughout the United States have cast the artform, which often involves dressing and acting exaggeratedly as another gender for entertainment, as sexually deviant and a subversive attempt to influence children.

Avalōx, who goes by she and they pronouns, founded Southern Utah Drag Stars after the fallout, hoping to showcase drag for members of the LGBTQ+ community in a rural place where such forms of entertainment are often lacking.

“I made it my mission to continue to do these events and not just one month out of the year, but to do so people that were like me when I was little ... can see that there are queer adults that get to live a long and fulfilled life,” Avalōx said in an interview. “My biggest ambition was to provide a public space where people can go to a park and enjoy a show that’s meant for everyone.”

Avalōx said that Drag Stars intended to host a show in a St. George city park in April and were told by a city events coordinator that they could start advertising before obtaining a permit. The city council later denied the group's permit, citing an ordinance that forbids advertising before permit approval.

St. George declined to comment on the lawsuit but its city attorney at the time defended its enforcement of the ordinance and the events coordinator denied approving a request from Avalōx to begin advertising.

In their complaint, Avalōx and lawyers with the ACLU frame St. George's decision to deny them event permits as part of a broader nationwide assault on drag performers and, accuse the city of “flagrant and ongoing violations of their free speech, due process, and equal protection rights."

They argue that St. George invoked an ordinance that had never been enforced in a manner that was selective and discriminatory toward the LGBTQ+ community.

“The City has employed its unfettered discretion under the ordinances to discriminatorily enforce them,” they argue in the complaint.

The complaint also says city councilwoman Michelle Tanner has been “stoking conflict” and broadly fostering an anti-LGBTQ climate in St. George, including by accusing those who perform in drag in front of children of “predatory behavior.”